Inside Parliament: Bishop preaches virtues of early education: Family benefits of nursery schooling for all praised - Commons told Sunday trading battle far from over

Stephen Goodwin
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:20

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, yesterday urged the Government to look at all areas of policy with the likely impact on the family in mind.

Similar calls were made by political opposites Lord (formerly Sir Keith) Joseph and Baroness (Brenda) Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, the former Sogat print union leader.

Making his maiden speech to the House of Lords, Bishop Harries hoped that John Major's professed goal of nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds would become a financial priority.

'Such early education is not only life-enhancing for mainstream children, but life- changing for those who are disadvantaged,' he said during a debate on support for the family. It was a better investment than putting money into solving crimes that pre-school education might have prevented.

'These are times of unprecedented pressure on the family,' the bishop said. 'The Church is doing what it always seeks to do - upholding the ideal of a lifelong union in which the children can be brought up, as the old prayer book put it, 'in the fear and nuture of the Lord', and ministering with understanding to those whose families have broken up.' Opening the debate, Lady Dean said every fiscal policy should be tested for what positive help it would give to families. A National Children's Home survey last year of 354 families, half of them on Income Support, found that one in five had gone hungry in the previous month, she told peers. The Government should use the UN International Year of the Family to 'reverse the present unfairness to families in many areas of policy'.

Though Lord Joseph said it would be 'no kindness to the family' if the Government refrained from difficult economic decisions and allowed inflation to rise, he too was critical. 'I am ashamed to confess that the Conservative Party has in several recent years nibbled at the tax concessions available to marriage. I believe that good enough parenthood is made harder if family incomes are too much squeezed.'

Lord Joseph, former Cabinet minister and guru to Margaret Thatcher, made his speech from a wheelchair. Sounding weak, he overran by seven minutes the nine minutes allowed to each speaker in the time-limited debate, and was twice interrupted by junior minister Viscount Astor with appeals to stop talking.

In another maiden speech, Baroness Dacre, a crossbencher, recited the 'wonderful words' of the Anglican wedding vows. 'How binding they should be,' she said. 'I fear marriage, in a lot of cases, is performed only for the reception afterwards. And the real meaning of the ceremony is drowned in a sea of champagne.'

Lady Dacre has been a peeress for 24 years. Accounting for the delay in making her first speech, she said that her late husband, the playwright, William Douglas-Home, had needed her more.

Family life was also an issue in the Commons as opponents of shopping on the Sabbath failed in a last-ditch attempt to wreck the Sunday Trading Bill. The measure, allowing small shops to open all day on Sunday and big stores to open up to six hours, has still to get through the Lords.

Hundreds of shopworkers lobbied Parliament to protest at the Report Stage bid to 'sabotage' the Bill. But the amendment which would have realised their worst fears by stopping the opening of large stores was rejected by 300 votes to 239.

Ray Powell, Labour MP for Ogmore, claimed his party might have done a deal with the Government to get the Bill through. Most of the debate had been 'a farce - and perhaps a rigged farce', he said.

But Michael Fabricant, Tory MP for Mid Staffordshire, questioned whether the Bill's opponents had ever been shopping on a Sunday. 'When I listen to some, I actually wonder whether they even shop at all. Maybe they have their husbands, maybe have their wives - heaven forbid, maybe they even have their servants - shop for them.'

After all the scandals of recent months, MPs and peers should perhaps reflect on a little-known piece of Leninist wisdom resurrected by Bishop Harries to show that human nature does not change very much.

After the 1917 Revolution, people used to consult Lenin about life in a socialist society. One peasant travelled hundreds of miles to ask him if it was permissible in the new society for a man to keep a mistress.

Comrade Lenin replied: 'It is not only permissible, it is obligatory. Then a man can tell his mistress he has to be with his wife and say to his wife that he is with his mistress. Meanwhile he can be getting down to some solid work in the library.'

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